Anna Turley, the shadow minister for civil society, was this morning unsuccessful in her attempt to add a clause to the charities bill to reverse the "chilling effect" of the lobbying act.
At this morning’s general committee discussion of the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill, which would give the Charity Commission greater powers and allow charities to make social investments, Turley put forward an amendment that would grant charities the right to carry out political campaigning in line with their charitable objects.
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 introduced caps on the amounts that organisations can spend campaigning on issues that could be perceived as party political in the run-up to elections.
A report published by the Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement in September found that the act had hampered legitimate campaigning in the run-up to last year’s general election, echoing fears expressed by many charities that they would be gagged by the act.
The amendment introduced by Turley made provisions for any charity to "undertake political campaigning or political activity in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes" and "campaign to ensure support for, or to oppose, a change in the law, policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies".
The amendment was vocally opposed by government MPs and was withdrawn, although Turley vowed to reintroduce it at the bill’s third reading in parliament.
Introducing the amendment, Turley said: "We are clear that this is a direct attempt to challenge the unfair and poorly applied Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, or the gagging act, as it has become known."
But Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, said he had seen nothing to suggest the act prevented charities from campaigning on key issues.
Jeremy Lefroy, the Conservative MP for Stafford, agreed, saying: "Since the general election I have not received one single representation from any charity about a so-called chilling effect on their work."
However, Turley and other Labour MPs rejected this, saying they had been approached by numerous charities and were supported by them in putting forward the amendment.
Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling, reminded MPs that charities received public funding in the form of Gift Aid, which he described as "money taken by force, not a charitable gift, not an extra donation" and it was important "we do not force them to support a party".
But Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Hove & Portslade, pointed out that the amendment was allowing charities to support or oppose individual policies, not political parties.
Turley concluded: "A government which seeks a big society and a strong civil society should not be afraid of one of the most fundamental aspects of that, the right to free speech and to hold government to account."
At the session, the committee agreed an amendment that would extend existing reserve powers to regulate charity fundraising if self-regulation was deemed to have failed.
The amendment could require mandatory registration and compliance with a specified fundraising regulator or for fundraising regulation to be carried out by the Charity Commission.
A Labour amendment requiring the commission to publish guidelines on what independent schools should do to meet their charitable requirements was withdrawn.